A Representation Of Nothing

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Is the National Census an attempt to dismantle the caste system, or simply a restatement of colonial manipulation?

Vivek Dhareshwar
Vivek Dhareshwar
Scholar

IS THE demand to include caste in the census driven by cognitive interest, policy considerations or sheer political pragmatism? What should those who are skeptical about not only this exercise, but about the very idea of a caste-system do when the enumerator knocks?

Fracturing society As more and more caste groups (like the Gujjars above) agitate for quotas, can the caste census serve any real purpose?
Fracturing society As more and more caste groups (like the Gujjars above) agitate for quotas, can the caste census serve any real purpose?
Photo : Shailendra Pandey

When the census enumerator visits me and asks me about my caste, I want to ask if I could enter “computer scientist” or “liberal” or “Marxist.” If “Badagi” (carpenter), “Madhva” and “Iyengar” are legitimate candidates, it’s not clear what’s illegitimate about my suggestion. If those English words don’t sound like caste names, let us use ‘ganaki,’ ‘udari,’ ‘edpanthi’ and demand that these names be included in the list. This is another way of making the simple point that we in fact have no clear idea what we are expected to say when we are asked to give our caste. Many of us by now have no difficulty in appreciating why it feels odd or downright unreal to write “Hindu” against the column “religion.” It is no different with the category ‘caste’. Some reflection on our practice of identifying communities or showing belongingness to groups — thavu yava matadavaru? yava sampradayadavaru? (“what’s your mata [belief], your sampradaya[tradition]”) — shows that there is no one term to elicit what in the west would be ‘ethnicity’. That caste-jati and religion have been made into such a term does not mean that they have that salience or intelligibility. What has the Badagi got to do with a Madhva? Maybe the former makes the latter a chair to sit on. Other than that, nothing at all. Why are these items — Badagi, Madhva, Iyengar, Shetty, Buddhists and Jains — put together in a collection or system? One can think of doing so for various reasons, may be to track the transactions between them. But can we say whether they are similar or different? Well, it looks like Badagi and Shetty pick out professions, and the rest seem to be (intellectual) traditions. Why are such heterogeneous items bundled in this incomprehensible fashion into a “caste system”? Moreover, why are “Buddhism” and “Jainism” religions and “Madhva” and “Iyengar” castes? What is “caste” and what is “religion”?

Well may you ask. No matter whom you read or ask — the colonial missionaries, administrators, the Indologists, or scholars in London, Cambridge, Oxford, Paris, Heidelberg, Chicago or their Indian counterparts and disciples — you will not find an answer. Rather you will hear a lot about hierarchy and sanskritisation, but no coherent explanation or theory of what these categories are. It matters little that hierarchy as a principle is to be found only in the social system and theology of medieval Europe than anywhere in India. And it is to this day unclear what social process sanskritisation is supposed to pick out (from which forgotten village). Some recent scholars have even realised that along with “quarks” and “queers” and everything else, caste (and religion) too is, yes, discursively constructed. So caste is anything you want it to be. (Similarly, Hinduism which was not there before the 18th century has now come into being, and as a religion, no less). For others, caste-system is the same as Brahminism (whatever that is), but for all of them it is something that has existed practically from time immemorial and which, so the story goes, has been sought to be abolished by Buddha, Allama, among others, down to missionaries, liberals and Marxists of our own time. Unsuccessfully of course, but no one seems to have a clear grasp of this entity that has supposedly persisted for many millennia! It outlived giants like Buddha and Allama (it’s a different matter what one really finds in their writings, but who is interested in that?) and it confronts us today with all its might, though we are still unable to identify it. Doubtless such failures have only enhanced the resolve of the State, politicians and the intelligentsia at its service to make one more attempt to abolish it.

There is no one term to elicit ‘ethnicity’. What has a Badagi got to do with a madhva?

But this time the strategy seems to be to complete the representations that colonisers had begun, so even if we do not cognitively know what a “caste system” is, at least we can have a full representation of it. This way we can finally put the finishing touches to our notion of “representation,” making it India’s unique and so far only contribution to western political theory.

The caste census will repeat and reproduce the actions of the Colonisers’

There is a minor hitch though: when the colonisers undertook caste enumeration, they were not providing a description of what there is in the social world. Their so-called descriptions were oblique instructions for action; they were instructing each other about how to deal with what they saw as groups with bewilderingly different practices. Practices that in their eyes violated moral norms. The colonial archive is to be seen, then, not as providing the descriptions of our social world that conscientious administrators and compassionate missionaries have left behind, but as containing the active traces of colonisers’ actions. The present caste census will be an attempt to repeat and reproduce those actions, but this time as and for representation. Will this repetition produce a tragedy or a farce? Most of our social scientists have only ever wanted to complete the reform initiated by the colonial state. Having never attempted cognitively to understand our social world, they perhaps think it is far easier to create a world they can manipulate. So when the holy alliance of politicians and intelligentsia are readying the State to complete this bizarre and simplified world, let’s at least try to create some new identities. Maybe the Supreme Court, the final arbiter in matters epistemic — such as whether an entity is religious, whether a symbol is religious, and whether a category is appropriately a caste-category — can be brought in to give its ruling!

Vivek Dhareshwar is a Bengaluru-based scholar

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